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Frequently Asked Questions About Sexual Harassment, Including Sexual Violence

Why is OCR concerned with the issue of sexual harassment?

Sexual harassment of students is a real and serious problem in education at all levels, including elementary and secondary schools, as well as colleges and universities. It can affect any student, regardless of sex, race, or age. Sexual harassment can threaten a student's physical or emotional well-being, influence how well a student does in school, and make it difficult for a student to achieve his or her career goals.

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment can take two forms: quid pro quo and hostile environment.

Quid pro quo harassment occurs when a school employee causes a student to believe that he or she must submit to unwelcome sexual conduct in order to participate in a school program or activity. It can also occur when an employee causes a student to believe that the employee will make an educational decision based on whether or not the student submits to unwelcome sexual conduct. For example, when a teacher threatens to fail a student unless the student agrees to date the teacher, it is quid pro quo harassment.

Hostile environment harassment occurs when unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature is sufficiently serious that it affects a student's ability to participate in or benefit from an education program or activity, or creates an intimidating, threatening or abusive educational environment. A hostile environment can be created by a school employee, another student, or even someone visiting the school, such as a student or employee from another school.

Regardless of which type of harassment occurs, a school must take immediate and appropriate steps to stop it and prevent it from happening again. The judgment and common sense of teachers and administrators are important elements of any response. However, the school is responsible for taking all reasonable steps to ensure a safe and nondiscriminatory learning environment.

What does the law require?

OCR enforces Title IX, which prohibits discrimination based on a student’s sex in schools and colleges receiving federal funds. Prohibited discrimination occurs when a recipient's employees treat students differently on the basis of their sex, or engage in quid pro quo harassment, or when a recipient is aware of a sexually hostile environment and condones, tolerates or allows that environment to exist.

Federal civil rights laws are intended to protect students from discrimination, not to regulate the content of speech. OCR is sensitive to First Amendment concerns that may arise in the course of addressing sexual harassment complaints and takes special care to avoid actions that would impair the First Amendment rights of an institution's students and employees.

How does OCR help eliminate sexual harassment against students?

OCR investigates and resolves complaints alleging that educational institutions that are recipients of federal funds have failed to protect students from harassment based on sex. Complaints are often resolved by agreements requiring schools to adopt effective anti-harassment policies and procedures, train staff and students, address the incidents in question, and to take other steps to restore a nondiscriminatory environment.

In addition to resolving complaints by students and their parents, OCR takes steps to inform schools of their obligation to provide a nondiscriminatory environment. On January 19, 2001, OCR issued policy guidance that explained the legal principles requiring educational institutions that receive federal funds to take steps reasonably calculated to stop harassment when it occurs and prevent recurrence. On January 25, 2006, OCR also issued a "Dear Colleague" letter reminding recipients of the standards applicable to OCR's enforcement of compliance in cases raising sexual harassment issues. On April 4, 2011, OCR issued a “Dear Colleague” letter on schools’ obligations to protect students from sexual harassment and sexual violence. On April 29, 2014, OCR issued questions and answers on Title IX and sexual violence download files PDF (867K) to further clarify the legal requirements under Title IX articulated in prior OCR guidance and provide recommendations for addressing allegations of sexual violence.

OCR's field offices also engage in a variety of technical assistance activities in collaboration with state and local education and law enforcement agencies to encourage educational institutions to improve their anti-harassment policies and procedures and to assist students and their parents to work with schools to enhance the schools' anti-harassment capability.

Last Modified: 10/16/2015